Tag: China

Notes on Laszlo Montgomery’s The China History Podcast

Episodes run about 25-40 minutes, with each episode looking in depth at a particular topic in Chinese history. The topics vary widely; historical events or periods, famous and/or interesting people, religion and philosophy; and are not necessarily presented in any particular order. There is a three part series on Daoism, a nine part series on the History of Chinese Philosophy, and ten episodes on The History of Tea in China! It’s an excellent way into Chinese history for history buffs who want to go considerably deeper than, say, a History Channel documentary.

Montgomery is a US American whose native language is English, who studied Chinese language and culture in college and spent much of his life working in China. He’s aware that he’s coming at Chinese culture as an outsider, and seems fascinated and appreciative. There’s none of the condescending attitude that too often goes with westerners discussing non-western cultures.

He pronounces Chinese names the (Mandarin) Chinese way, complete with the different tones. To an English speaker the Chinese names can be hard to make out and hard to keep track of, especially since the pronunciation is often different from the (latin) spelling: Zhou sounds to my ears like ‘cho’ or ‘jo’, Tang sounds like ‘tongue’, Qin sounds like ‘sheen’ and Xia sounds like ‘sha’. That being said, I found that I gradually got better at hearing and remembering Chinese names.

Topics in Chinese history are often introduced by comparison to what was happening elsewhere in the world at the time, which helps with fitting new ideas from the podcast in with existing history knowledge.

The back catalogue is over 200 episodes and growing. If you don’t know where to start, I’d suggest just pick a topic that interests you. If you’re looking for a structured and detailed overview of Chinese History, you could start at Episode 14: The Xia Dynasty, and work your way through to Episode 41: The Qing Dynasty Part 7 and Episode 42: Review of the Overviews.

The official website is Teacup Media, which has a short blog-style entry for each episode, with an image and some additional info, and the episode as an embedded audio file which you can either stream or (sometimes, depending on the episode) download in mp3 format.

Episodes are also available free on The China History Podcast at iTunes and there is a China History Podcast Channel at Youtube and Teacup Media at Soundcloud.

Unfortunately these sites – iTunes, Youtube, Soundcloud – often seem to provide a ‘play’ button but not a download link. If you want to save/download episodes and you’re comfortable using the command line I recommend using youtube-dl.

It was surprisingly tricky to find an at-a-glance list of all the episodes; the official site only lists a few episodes per page, and the iTunes website truncates the episode titles, with the result that many are listed as The History of Chin… or something equally unhelpful. There is a useful list at podbay.fm/show/489369498, but the episodes hosted on this site have ads for another podcast inserted into them, which gets annoying. Use this site to pick out the episode you want, then search for an ad-free version of it elsewhere.

Episodes occasionally get removed when Montgomery decides to redo a particular topic, leaving some gaps in the back catalogue.

This post was updated 19/09/2018 to be more clear about how to download (as opposed to stream) episodes.


Pro-market but anti-capitalist

The Confucian state actively pro­moted markets, and as a result, commercial life in China soon became far more sophisticated, and markets more developed, than anywhere else in the world. This despite the fact that Confucian orthodoxy was overtly hostile to merchants and even the profit motive itself. Commercial profit was seen as legitimate only as compensation for the labor that merchants expended in transporting goods from one place to another, but never as fruits of speculation. What this meant in practice was that they were pro-market but anti-capitalist.

This seems bizarre, since we’re used to assuming that capitalism and markets are the same thing, but as the great French historian Fernand Braudel pointed out, they could be viewed as opposites. While markets are about using money as a medium to exchange goods, capitalism is first and foremost the art of using money to get more money.

– Exerpted/adapted from ‘Debt: the first 5000 years’ by David Graeber, p260

Oriental Despotism

The theory of Oriental Despotism was created by western historians, and was a reflection of the colonial mindset; it negated Indianess, Indian nationalism, Indian culture and Indian people. Western historians even refused to accept that there was an Indian freedom struggle against the British colonialism and exploitation.

The focus of this theory is on India and China, the two major civilizations of the Orient. There were comments about “unchanging stagnant India”. Since India had been ruled by despots and tyrants, the uncivilized Indians were fit to be ruled with an iron had. It was held that there had been no change in Indian custom, laws and manners because Indians are indolent in both body and mind and hence prone to inaction.

Indian thought was depicted as symbolic and mythical rather than rational and logical. Anglicists argued that western knowledge in English should displace the Eastern.

Such ideological constructs were created to derive the legitimacy to impose tyrannical rule on India. The British administrator historians or the Anglicists as they were called, developed related theory of “Civilizing Mission”, “White Man’s Burden”, “Theory of Guardianship” etc.

– Om Prakash, “Negating the Colonial Construct of Oriental Despotism: The Science of Statecraft in Ancient India”, somewhat paraphrased.

Four Great Inventions

Although Chinese culture is replete with lists of significant works or achievements (e.g. Four Great Beauties, Four Great Books of Song, Four Great Classical Novels, Four Books and Five Classics, Five Elders, Three Hundred Tang Poems, etc.), the concept of the Four Great Inventions is adapted from the European intellectual and rhetorical commonplace of the Three Great (or, more properly, Greatest) Inventions. This commonplace spread rapidly throughout Europe in the sixteenth century and was appropriated only in recent times by Chinese scholars. The origin of the Three Great Inventions—these being the printing press, firearms, and the nautical compass—was originally ascribed to Europe, and specifically to Germany in the case of the printing press and firearms. These inventions were a badge of honor to modern Europeans, who proclaimed that there was nothing to equal them among the ancient Greeks and Romans. After reports by Portuguese sailors and Spanish missionaries began to filter back to Europe beginning in the 1530s, the notion that these inventions had existed for centuries in China took hold. However, this did not extinguish competing claims for a European origin, in part due to the technological superiority of European firearms and printing presses. By 1620, when Francis Bacon wrote in his Instauratio magna that “printing, gunpowder, and the nautical compass . . . have altered the face and state of the world: first, in literary matters; second, in warfare; third, in navigation,” this was hardly an original idea to most learned Europeans.

Wikipedia: Four Great Inventions

The Industrial Revolution

Things the Chinese Song Dynasty civilization did, around the year 1100:

  • Invent the compass, the seismograph, and the odometer.
  • Invent the pound lock, which is still used today for moving boats through canals.
  • Print the world’s first banknotes in government-run factories.
  • Have trebuchets that launched exploding gunpowder cannonballs!
  • Lead the world in ship-building.
  • Invent the moveable type printing press, and use it to reproduce written works quickly and cheaply.
  • Use windmills and water-wheels to provide mechanical power for a variety of purposes, from grain mills, from efficient rock-crushing machines, to smelting iron and steel, to an astrological clock.
  • Build small factories with assembly lines, worked by skilled artisans, for assembling products made from many smaller parts.
  • Have a thriving steel and iron industry, mass-producing items such as ploughs, hammers, needles, nails, and chains for suspension bridges.
  • Probably produce more iron and coal in the 12th century than England did in the late 18th.

Things the Chinese Song Dynasty civilization of around the year 1100 did not do:

  • Violently drive millions of peasants off their common lands, creating a starving underclass who could easily be persuaded to work in factories under terrible conditions for almost no pay, since they had no other way to survive.
  • Invade and occupy much of North America, South America, India and Africa, killing and enslaving millions of people.
  • Send an ever-increasing stream natural resources stolen from the colonised lands back home to the factories to be converted into mass-produced goods.
  • Believe themselves to be a superior type of human, chosen by God to rule by divine right over everything and everyone in the world.


Video: “ZDF info: Ursprung der Technik: Mechanik des Fernen Ostens” (in German).

“The Song Dynasty in China” http://afe.easia.columbia.edu/song/index.html.

Wikipedia: “Science and technology of the Song Dynasty”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Science_and_technology_of_the_Song_Dynasty.

Wikipedia: “Economy of the Song Dynasty”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_the_Song_Dynasty.

Wikipedia: “Enclosure”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enclosure

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